All the men who have captained the famous rugby side in Test matches on tour
British & Irish Lions Captains – 1959-1924
1959 – Ronnie Dawson (Lion #388, Ireland), New Zealand and Australia
Dawson’s team scored more points than any other Lions team – 842 in 33 games. They beat Australia 2-0, but succumbed 4-1 to New Zealand.
The captain of Ireland at the time, there was much debate surrounding his captaincy, primarily because of the fine form of Bryn Meredith, the Welsh international hooker. Dawson led the Lions in six Tests, a record later matched by Martin Johnson, and managed to score in the second Test against the All Blacks.
He coached the Lions in 1968 against South Africa and was later president of the Irish Rugby Union and chairman of the IRFB – now World Rugby.
1955 – Cliff Morgan (Lion #363, Wales) v South Africa
One of the greatest fly-halves to emerge from the British Isles, the Cardiff star played every match on tour and is the only Welshman to ever captain the Lions to a Test victory in South Africa.
The series became known as the Cliff Morgan tour, with Morgan scoring a try in the first Test as the Lions triumphed 23-22 in front of a then world-record crowd of 100,000 in Johannesburg.
Captaining the team for the third Test after an injury to Robin Thompson, he controlled the game with his boot, with a 9-6 win ensuring that the Lions couldn’t lose the series. However, he wasn’t fully fit for the final Test, with the condition of his ankle dominating newspaper stories in the week before the game and the Lions fell to defeat.
He became even more well-known for his subsequent BBC career, famously commentating on the 1973 Barbarians win over New Zealand.
1955 – Robin Thompson (Lion #367, Ireland), South Africa
Thompson was a bit of a surprise choice as British & Irish Lions captain, with this tour his only involvement with the Lions. Nevertheless, the lock started every Test he was fit for, missing out on the third through injury.
The Lions drew a highly entertaining series 2-2 – the first time they hadn’t lost against South Africa since 1896. A lock from Ulster, he began a fine tradition of Irish second-row captains, culminating in the appointments of Willie John McBride and Paul O’Connell.
1950 – Bleddyn Williams (Lion #353, Wales), Australia and New Zealand
Another player nicknamed the ‘Prince of Centres’, Williams was the first Welshman to captain the Lions since Jack Jones 40 years before – with whom he shared a nickname!
Taking over the captaincy after an injury to Mullen, the Lions were unhappy with New Zealand’s ‘Otago-style’ rucking, which was thought to unfairly target the scrum-half. Scoring 13 tries on tour, he also led the side to a 44-6 win in an unofficial Test against Ceylon (Sri Lanka), before returning to his job at the Steel Company of Wales.
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1950 – Karl Mullen (Lion #333, Ireland), Australia and New Zealand
Mullen had impeccable credentials, having led Ireland to their first-ever Grand Slam in 1948 and another title the year after. He was a product of Belvedere College, from which Cian Healy would go on to become another Lion.
Mullen’s side were the first team to visit New Zealand since 1930, the first to consist of entirely capped internationals and the final Lions party to travel by passenger ship.
Known as the ‘Friendly Tour’, the Lions lost in New Zealand 3-0 despite drawing the first Test, with Mullen injured for the third and fourth games. However, he’d return to captain the side for the final game of a 2-0 series win in Australia.
After his rugby career, he became a distinguished gynaecologist.
1938 – Sam Walker (Lion #311, Ireland), South Africa
The Ulster prop from Instonians RFC led a young Lions side to South Africa to play an extremely strong Springboks team. In the final tour before World War Two, the Lions lost a closely fought series 2-1, with which his team emerged with a lot of credit.
The local media gave the British and Irish team plaudits for their fearless and expansive style, which was rewarded with a 21-16 triumph in the final Test – the first Lions win over South Africa since 1910.
Exceptionally fit for a prop, Walker was credited with boosting morale and encouraging flair amidst another wave of injuries for the tourists.
1936 – Bernard Gadney (Lion #283, England), Argentina
This was the final time that the Lions would tour South America, and like previous tours, they won every game. Bernard Gadney’s team would score 399 points and concede only 12.
The scrum-half was Leicester’s debut England captain, beginning a proud tradition, and was later selected in his club’s team of the century. In the same year as the tour, Gadney captained England to their first-ever win over the All Blacks, in a match now known as ‘Obolensky’s Game’.
He served as an officer in World War Two and later became a headmaster.
1930 – Carl Aarvold (Lion #230, England), New Zealand
A real character of rugby in England’s North East, centre Aarvold filled in for Prentice for most of the Test series, being British & Irish Lions captain eight times on tour. He top-scored for the Lions with nine tries, but his side were undone by the great New Zealand full-back George Nepia.
Aarvold’s later life took a few prestigious turns – he was the presiding barrister at the trial of the Kray twins in 1965, was made the senior judge at the Old Bailey and was knighted in 1968. His love apart from rugby was tennis – he was a long-time president of the Lawn Tennis Association.
1930 – Doug Prentice (Lion #276, England), Australia and New Zealand
The aging Prentice wasn’t so much picked for his on-field ability – though a redoubtable Leicester forward in his day – but for his perceived leadership qualities. He’d need all his diplomacy, with New Zealand’s controversial 2-3-2 scrum formation causing a ruckus between the two teams.
He only played in the second Test, refusing to pick himself for any more because didn’t consider his form merited selection. They won the first Test against New Zealand 6-3, but fell to defeat in the next three, as well as by a single point in a one-off Test against Australia.
Prentice stayed in rugby after retirement, managing the Lions on their 1936 tour of Argentina and becoming secretary of the RFU.
1927 – David MacMyn (Lion #249, Scotland), Argentina
Like John Raphael, MacMyn was British & Irish Lions captain on an unofficial tour to Argentina, primarily held for the purpose of giving Argentinean rugby a financial boost. Despite being a second-row, the London Scottish player scored three tries in a clean sweep of wins in the Test series.
A neurosurgeon, he balanced his career with later becoming the 72nd president of the Scottish Rugby Union.
1924 – Ronald Cove-Smith (Lion #201, England), South Africa
The 1924 side were the first team to be given the Lions nickname and were led by Ronald Cove-Smith, a qualified doctor who played at lock. He’d never lost an International in 13 appearances before taking on the captaincy – but this would quickly change.
An injury crisis left his team without any recognised goalkickers, and they’d fall to the worst record of any Lions side. They won only nine games of 21, including a 3-0 defeat in the Test series, although they managed a creditable 3-3 draw in the third match.
Cove-Smith would go on to captain England to the Grand Slam in 1928.